I can hear it now:
“It’s the year 80, and here we are in Thessalonica. Forty years ago, Paul said the end of the world was coming. Yes, he did. He wrote us a letter saying that the Lord would descend from heaven with a shout, with the Archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them…” (1Thes.4:16)
“It never happened. Forty years have passed, hundreds of our people have died, Paul has died, and many more hundreds have been born. The Romans have destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, but the end of the world never happened.”
“Paul was wrong. When he wrote, "then we who are still alive," he was referring to himself and to those who were living then. He believed he would see this apocalyptic event unfold before his very eyes. He told us this was the word of the Lord, not just something he was dreaming. Paul was wrong about this; what else was he wrong about?”
Paul reminds me of all the great leaders I’ve known in my lifetime. All of them have been wrong from time to time; none of them were infallible; all of them were human. So was Paul. The fact that his letters were declared to be “scripture” about 350 years later, doesn’t make each one of his sentences divine or incapable of error. He was just as human as the rest of us.
But he was a leader. Leaders have to do a lot of talking and when you talk a lot, you can’t be right all the time. So Paul was wrong when he wrote this letter to the Thessalonians – so what? Paul had three other basic characteristics of leadership:
Paul had Vision. It took him 14 years to figure it out, but he finally saw it. Like every great leader, Paul imagined the future. He pictured this little Jewish cult that might easily fade away in Jerusalem, transforming itself into a vibrant new religion capable of capturing the imaginations of Greeks who had been raised on the myths of Thor and Zeus. Paul figured they would love the idea of a new Messiah who resembled many of their own gods like Achilles who was burned alive but then snatched from his funeral pyre and resurrected. And Paul was right. They accepted Paul’s leadership and they embraced his new religion which he named: Christianity. Paul had vision.
What’s our vision?
Paul generated Trust. Greeks were not Jews. It was one thing for a Greek to accept the idea of a resurrected Jesus, it was quite another to submit to circumcision. Paul would never be trusted if he tried to force his men to undergo circumcision and to obey all those kosher dietary restrictions that had no meaning for them whatsoever. So Paul promised to rescind all these laws.
The leaders of the Jesus-cult in Jerusalem didn’t agree with this at all, and they were outraged that Paul would even suggest it. Besides Peter, it was James the brother of Jesus himself, who tried to get Paul back in line. But for Paul, this was all about trust; he had promised his Greek converts and he couldn’t go back on his word. So Paul made “no circumcision” a rule for his new Greek-Christians, and it stuck. Paul knew how to generate trust.
Who trusts us?
Paul had integrity. He didn’t back down and change his message when people attacked him, and he didn’t let them ride over him either. When Paul learned that others were destroying the message he had preached by preaching “another gospel” (Gal.1:6) he fought back. “Damn them,” he wrote, when he heard that the leaders from Jerusalem were pushing circumcision again, “Damn them: I wish they’d just castrate themselves.” (Gal.5:12)
Pretty strong stuff, especially when he was cursing out the brother of Jesus himself. But Paul had integrity; he believed in his Vision, he had generated the trust of his own team, and now it was time to stick by his word. That’s what leaders do.
Are we leaders too?